Protecting community rights over traditional knowledge

The current system of intellectual property rights is designed to promote commercial and scientific innovation. It offers little scope for protecting the knowledge rights of indigenous peoples, traditional farmers and healers, whose survival requires collective – not exclusive – access to new knowledge and innovations.

2004 - 2012
Krystyna Swiderska

Principal researcher and team leader (biocultural heritage), IIED's Natural Resources research group

Farmers sharing potatoes in the Potato Park near Pisaq (Sacred Valley), Peru

Many communities face increasing threats to their resource rights due to the spread of western intellectual property rights (IPRs), often through Free Trade Agreements. If IPRs are granted too easily they can confer rights over community resources to others and do not require consent or benefit-sharing when community resources are used.

They can also limit the rights of farmers to use, sell or exchange a bio-resource, which can be a serious problem if your livelihood depends on it.

This action-research project, which ran from 2004-09, developed tools to allow communities to maintain control over their knowledge and related bio-resources, helping them to take advantage of market opportunities and preventing them from being exploited and misappropriated.

What IIED did

This project explored the customary laws and practices of indigenous and local communities to identify appropriate mechanisms to protect their resource rights and knowledge systems.

It involved participatory research at community level to strengthen local capacity and develop local tools for protecting traditional knowledge – including biocultural registers, biocultural community protocols and biocultural products.

It also informed policies on traditional knowledge and biodiversity at local, national and international levels, and developed the concept of collective biocultural heritage, which provided the common framework to link different studies on this theme in China, India, Kenya, Panama and Peru.

Watch a short film that explores the status and threats to biocultural heritage, and the responses needed, on IIED's YouTube channel, or below:


Additional resources

Project website:

Video: Traditional knowledge rights: heritage on the edge (2017)

PLA65: Biodiversity and culture: exploring community protocols, rights and consent, guest edited by Krystyna Swiderska with Angela Milligan, Kanchi Kohli, Harry Jonas, Holly Shrumm, Wim Hiemstra, Maria Julia Oliva (2012), Participation, Learning and Action Journal

Guest blog: BBC Viewpoint: Could things for biodiversity go from bad to worse?, by Krystyna Swiderska (July 2010)


Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy

Ecoserve, Delhi

Herbal and Folklore Research Centre (HFRC)

Kenya Forestry Research Centre

International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology

Fundacion Dobbo Yala

Asociacion ANDES